The messages are mixed - in the same week that a CCS forecast predicted that the number of wearables will hit 135 million worldwide in 2018, 80% of those questioned in a Phones 4u uBar survey who said they didn’t intend to buy any smart tech, explained it was because they believed it was a gimmick, not useful, or that they did not understand what the technology did. With such contrasting information available knowing quite what expectations to have when it comes to this market segment are difficult to infer. Despite this, the importance of smart tech and wearables has continued to grow - as smartphones edge towards saturation point the mobile market searches for new growth areas. Mobile went to Phones 4u’s Be.Smart roundtable event to hear what six industry experts think, here’s are summary of the top five issues based on what the panel said:
1) The phone is the key
There was a reason why a mobile phone retailer was running an event on wearables: Phones 4u, along with many others, sees the smartphone as perfectly placed to be the centre of a smart tech world.
However, predicting quite how important wearables and other smart tech will become as their own proposition is difficult to say at this stage as some of the experts acknowledged:
‘This sector doesn’t show the same potential as mobile itself, it is very much a subset of mobile intrinsically linked to the mobile offering. But it is a necessary step because the problem that companies are finding is that smartphones are really boring. There needs to be something to maintain the interest for consumers and that adds to the experience. Some of our research has suggested that a sizable proportion of consumers become bored with wearable products and that will be a major challenge, to maintain that interest in these devices. In this industry there is a tendency to overhype everything, there are broader issues that go beyond the technology. Currently, we are at wearables 0.1.’
Ben Wood, Chief of Research, CCS Insight
‘In terms of understanding the package, Phones 4u is well placed, we are plugged right in to the centre of all this connectivity and can offer advice from this position. As a tech company in the consumer space we believe that we are the right people to be the connection between smart tech products and the customer.’
Scott Hooton, CMO, Phones 4u
2) Every customer is different
One of the goals the Be.Smart campaign set itself was to better understand the customer’s views on smart tech and wearables. A point that was reiterated time and again was that despite customer interest being high, understanding of exactly what product was right for the individual remained elusive. This was one of the major issues that Phones 4u discovered from the campaign:
‘There is a general awareness from the consumer around smart tech, but our research has shown that they aren’t necessarily sure what’s right for them. There is a need at the moment for categorisation and indexing so that the customer can understand things better.’
Scott Hooton, CMO, Phones 4u
‘Why is Fitbit the most successful wearable on the market? Because we understand that one size does not fit all. That’s why we will have a tag as well as a body clip, because some people want to do things a different way. We like to consider things differently rather than looking for the gap in the market, we look for the market in the gap.’
Gareth Jones, VP EMEA, Fitbit
3) We will wear more and more…
All the experts gathered at the event accepted this technology would take off eventually. However there were disagreements about quite where the market was at this present moment. Although all agreed that for the foreseeable future it would remain connected to the mobile offering:
‘One thing that is very interesting is that there has been a movement from devices you wear occasionally to ones that you wear all the time. Traditional issues still exist such as price, the ability to integrate wearables with other devices and the quality of interaction for the consumer. The product has to work well in context as well as in isolation, manufacturers need to build something as useable as possible.’
Andrew Morley, VP and GM for Motorola, UK & Ireland
4) People bring their own reasons
As the iPad showed with the tablet market consumers will justify buying a device after purchasing it. Clearly a similar effect would be a welcome boost for the market. With rumours of Apple entering the wearables space this could be exactly the kind of impact that other players are hoping for both in terms of awareness and impact.
‘We are currently at the growing pains period, but eventually that will go away and you get multifunctional interconnected devices. At this stage we are running a trial, you can’t expect to educate 60 million people in the UK on this new technology right away, but you can start trying to learn from it. You have to avoid being preachy, that really turns customers off and is something we’re well aware of. It’s all about helping the customer to understand the benefits of the device they have bought. They might purchase it for the fitness aspects but the actual benefit they find from using the device comes from a spin-off feature.’
Scott Hooton, CMO, Phones 4u
5) At the moment it’s assisted
With a low level of understanding about these type of products it’s unsurprising that the customer still needs to be guided through the purchase. It’s something that retailers need to improve, but it is also a chicken and egg scenario because the only way that it will cease to be an assisted sale is through greater customer education, which the retailers would suggest they are best at providing.
‘With this type of product it’s very much an assisted sale at present and we believe we are in the right place to provide that service. The interest is high but we need to know what these customers want. We want to look at the areas we need to address in order to make it successful. In terms of seamless interactions, it will get there, but at the moment it’s about preparing customers for a product. When we began this research we looked at awareness and intent to purchase and found from a consumer perspective they were both high.’
Ben Padley, Global VP & marketing director, Phones 4u
Two areas frequently overlooked when it comes to wearables and smart tech:
Missing the markets
One criticism with fitness-centric wearables is that the products tend to be used by those who are in least need of them. The potential benefits of the features carried on wearable fitness devices to the less mobile or physically active is far greater, but is, as yet, unrealised. The elderly and unfit are surely both markets that would benefit from wearing health monitors connected to a mobile phone, and why they have not been targeted is yet to be explained.
Criticisms of products such as the smartwatch often centre on the fact that while the device can alert the user to something easily it is limited when it comes to interaction, or to be harsh, the device is little more than a glorified pager. This might be a drawback in the consumer space but in the public sector there is great deal of potential for such devices. Doctors and nurses have used pagers for years and a more sophisticated device could be of even greater benefit to them. Add to that list police officers, firefighters and the military and it seems that those outside the consumer space are another major market for these products.
The networks and manufacturers
Currently, wearables and smart tech are falling under the accessories bracket for many retailers and networks. Listening to the talk from advocates of these devices suggests that they are far more important than the tag suggests. A major play by either the network or from the manufacturers to define them in different terms would be hugely significant but has so far not been forthcoming. For instance if networks began to offer them as part of a tariff or in the same promotional way as they do a tablet or games console this could have a major impact in changing attitudes towards them. Likewise if manufacturers bundled up a piece of smart tech or wearable device with a new handset the increased reach could change the market dramatically.